By Robert Barrie
Is your child bright, dull, or naughty? These are terms we have often heard teachers use to describe their students when we begin training sessions. The bright children help teach the dull ones, and the naughty ones are the real problem. The terms sound a bit quaint and even oddly charming, partly as a function of how English is spoken in India—strongly flavored with Colonial British elements. But really the attitude such thinking reveals is neither uniquely Indian nor even unique to developing nations. This kind of thinking about students is a relic of the industrial age, and it is a mindset that the developing world doesn’t need any more than the developed world does.
Public education as we know it has its roots in the need for a reliable workforce for the factories that drove the economies of the day. The bright children could be groomed for managerial positions, the dull ones could be trained to follow directions consistently, show up on time, and not create problems. That left the naughty ones, who were bound for the army, or prison. Teaching didn’t require much more thinking about the children than that. But now economies are driven by more than just industry or agriculture. There are information economies, service economies, tourism economies, health-care economies, and the industrial economies of today require far more technical mastery and problem-solving ability on the factory floor than was once necessary.
As the forces driving the economy have multiplied and increased in complexity, our thinking about students must as well. Bright students are not simply bright. They may be adept at mathematics or literacy in particular. They may be good at following directions and meeting expectations, but struggle when original thinking is necessary. Dull children are not simply dull. They appear that way because of learning disabilities, or because they get no encouragement to challenge themselves, or because the kind of skills needed to succeed in the classroom are not their areas of strength. Naughty children may be acting that way due to boredom, or lack of intellectual challenge, or because they find they get more attention that way. Perhaps their naughtiness is really an expression of intellectual risk-taking and a desire to transcend limitations (qualities many businesses actively seek when hiring). Whatever the causes may be for a child to appear bright, dull, or naughty, those descriptors are symptoms, not inherent character traits. Good teaching looks beyond the surface behaviors to find ways for all children to succeed.
In the developing world, wireless technology is leap-frogging ahead of the old hard-wired networks to bring communities that recently lived a nineteenth century life-style directly into the twenty-first century. There is no point in laying land lines everywhere where it is easier and more cost-effective to jump straight to wireless. Education can work the same way. With micro-loans and self-help organizations generating small business opportunities in rural areas, and the technology industry booming in places like Bangalore and Mumbai, Indian employers need creative problem solvers every bit as much as American employers do. Why turn out workers prepared only to follow directions and show up on time? They don’t fulfill the needs of the 21st century economy in the developed world, and they will not be much use to the developing world either.